Adrian Tomine’s latest graphic novel Shortcomings, a collection of three Optic Nerve issues serialized from 2004 to 2007, opens with the ending of a fictional Joy Luck Club-style film. The ending is a biting parody of the kind of overly-sentimentalized, tear-jerking tales of cultural acceptance that Shortcomings sets itself firmly against. On the contrary, the graphic novel’s protagonist Ben Tanaka, a Japanese-American theatre manager in Northern California, begins the story with a sense of cultural self-acceptance that slowly unravels throughout the novel. In place of a conclusive affirmation, Shortcomings weaves an intricate portrait of the various responses to age and identity that set in during the early years of post-twenties life.
Tomine doesn’t seem interested in issues of Asian-American identity so much as in the multitude of lifestyles created by people in reaction to the question of their idea of self. His characters don’t create themselves around their identity but out of ways to avoid it, and it’s in the subtle language and aesthetic of avoidance that Tomine as a writer is strongest — he excels not at the larger issue of Asian-American identity but in the precise language of the arguments it leads to. Tomine never directly tackles any larger question of identity but instead fills Shortcomings with each of its minor outward personifications, drenched in the forgiving language of post-1990’s California. Miko defends her new boyfriend by saying, “He’s half Jewish, half Native American,” to which Ben responds: “Is that what he put on his college application?” Reading Shortcomings, one can’t help but feel his glee at skewering overly-sentimentalized independent films, clichéd “Margaret Cho impressions,” and predetermined statements on heritage and identity.
In many ways Shortcomings feels like a state-of-the-union type of work, one that examines the varied reactions to the early-thirties slump approached by the sarcastic Gen X kids who initially populated Tomine’s works. His characters visually appear left over from the nineties, sporting a mélange of bleached blond hair, striped sweaters, and casual ties that leaves a trace of slightly out-dated hipness on the entire book. But Tomine’s difficulty in completely updating the style of his characters parallels their own plight in Shortcomings. The question of how Tomine as an author goes about transporting his characters from the laid-back party atmosphere of their twenties into the world of legitimate responsibility and creation is the same question that his characters must ask themselves. As the reader ponders how the glazed discontent of nineties generation found itself here, we understand the very question Ben and Alice must be asking themselves.
It’s in the reaction to delayed maturation that the characters’ shortcomings lie. Ben, cozy in his dead-end relationship and menial theatre job, hasn’t reacted to the pressures of growing out of youth, and Shortcomings essentially examines how everyone else has. Awakening out of the collapse of his long-term relationship, Ben seems an alien visiting a new planet. His movements in social circles are restricted by a web of political phrases that he refuses to recognize, but the problem lies not in Ben’s political incorrectness but in his refusal to follow any sort of conviction through. Through Ben’s eyes, Shortcomings becomes a journal of the renewed reactions of a skeptic to a landscape swathed in politically correct phrases and symbols, as well as a questioning of the value of those symbols in place of that which preceded them.
It also criticizes the very creativity that Ben resists. Tomine understands all too well how creativity easily falls into categories without going anywhere, how people’s projects are a part of their image more than a plan or ongoing interest, and how when Auburn tells Ben that her performance group is “taking the physicality of modern dance and the improvisation of free jazz and infusing it with a punk sensibility,” it’s code for “I dropped out of college to work at a movie theatre.” It’s not only Ben that Tomine is dissatisfied with – his other characters have just as easily drifted into the venues and categories already set out for them, be it the predictable political-correctness of graduate academia, the bored hipness of menial work, or the tired futility of recycled creative production.
Tomine is skilled at mocking the lifestyle choices of twenty-somethings but problems arise when one gets a sense of how much he seems to enjoy aestheticizing his own characters, and how genuinely attracted he seems to be to the lifestyle he attempts to criticize. One certainly gets the sense that Tomine gets as much pleasure in drawing skinny blonds with cropped haircuts and the individual squares of plaid on Ben’s shirts as he does in self-deprecatingly critiquing the dazed hipness of his characters. He parodies the late-nineties ideal only to the extant that he seems genuinely attracted to it, and in the end, Tomine never really gets to condemn the over-stylization of his characters in the face of legitimate life decisions because he is the cause of them being so heavily stylized in the first place. The struggles of Shortcomings‘ characters at times feel inauthentic because they occasionally appear to take place in an American Apparel ad.
In the end, though, Shortcomings is a work of sympathy for a person who has dug himself into a hole in life and in outlook, and a knowing criticism of that which has led him there. If Tomine has an underlying message, it’s perhaps a dissatisfaction that his unique generation ended up drowning in over-determined political correctness and tired experimentation. Yet there is a certain sympathy in Tomine’s dissatisfaction, and an understanding of the relative ease of falling back on the remnants of disaffected youth culture. We are left with a sense at the end that Ben does not have the motivation to overcome the abrupt change in stasis his life has sustained on his own. It’s necessary for him to adopt one of the predetermined venues of his generation — at least as a starting point. Ultimately, then, Tomine demonstrates the necessity of the obvious categorization of his peers to cope with the jarring reality of post-twenties life even as he criticizes it.